Making the playoffs is easier in the East. Would that have helped the Kings avoid a record playoff drought?

Despite more than half of NBA teams making the playoffs each year, the Sacramento Kings have not made the playoffs since 2006, tying the LA Clippers’ Extremely Racist Owner Era for the longest playoff drought in league history. As of early March, the Kings look likely to take sole ownership of the NBA’s playoff drought record with an impressive 16 year streak of futility.

While there is plenty of blame to go around whenever you’re at the precipice of breaking any sort of sports anti-record, the Kings could reasonably claim that having had to compete in the Western Conference, which for decades has been the stronger of the two conferences, is at least somewhat to blame for their playoff drought. Ignoring the geographical absurdity of putting Sacramento’s team in the Eastern conference, would the Kings really have fared better if they had been in the Eastern Conference? The answer is: yes, but not by that much.

What an 8th Seed Looks Like

Since the NBA playoffs began including eight teams from each conference in 1984, the standard for sneaking into the playoffs has been to win roughly half of your games. But the Eastern Conference’s standards for who gets into the playoffs have tended to be notably lower than the Western Conference’s standards: the average Eastern Conference 8th seed has won about 49% of its games while the average Western Conference 8th seed has won about 52% of its games. Over an 82 game season, that’s about two and a half more victories for 8th seeds from the better half of America — not an enormous difference, but the kind of thing that might elongate a playoff drought to an embarrassing level with a little bad luck.

But if we look at the Kings’ regular season records over the last 16 seasons, there is only one year — 2008 — where their record would have been good enough to secure the 8th seed in the East. That would drop their playoff drought from 15 seasons (and running) to a “measly” 13 seasons (and running).

How Would the Kings Have Done in the Eastern Conference?

However, simply comparing the Kings’ records to the records to Eastern Conference 8th seeds isn’t fair to the Kings, because teams play the majority of their games against teams in their conference. So the Kings have not only had to compete for playoff spots that require better records to clinch, they’ve had to do so while playing most of their games against the typically stronger Western Conference teams.

So to get a more fair idea of how a hypothetical Eastern Conference Sacramento Kings would have fared over the last decade and a half, we need to take into account how their regular season records might have changed had they been playing an Eastern Conference schedule. To get this, we’ll find what the Kings’ record would have been if they kept their same win percentages against Eastern and Western conference teams but played an Eastern conference team’s schedule, so most of their games would have been against East teams.

Let’s focus just on the seasons where the Kings were roughly in the ballpark of contending for a playoff spot: 2007; 2008; 2016; 2017; 2019; 2020; and 2021. The “East Kings” would have had a better record than the real life West Kings all but two seasons (2017 and 2020), which would have netted them a grand total of one additional playoff appearance, in 2019, bringing the total playoff appearances in the last 16 years for a hypothetical Eastern Conference Sacramento Kings to two (in 2008 and 2019). Not impressive, but enough to cut the playoff drought to eleven seasons.

Making the Play-In Games Does Not Count as Making the Playoffs (a two-sentence aside)

Making the playoffs counts as making the playoffs. Making the play-in games and not making the playoffs does not count as making the playoffs. For the seasons with play-in games (2020 and beyond), I used the regular season 8th seeds’ records for comparison to maintain consistency across the seasons, though we might eventually see the Kings snap their playoff drought with the 9th or 10th best record in the West if they can manage to win two play-in games in a row.

How Bad is the Kings’ Playoff Drought, Really?

Can we do better than this rough approximation? Eh, not really. Putting the Kings in the Eastern Conference would mean putting them in a particular division and presumably moving one East team to the Western Conference. Depending on which team we pick to swap, we could make the Eastern Conference stronger or weaker. If we swap them with the Knicks, they might not do much better, since we’re taking out one team they would be able to regularly beat head-to-head and in the standings, but if we swap them for a consistently good team like the Heat, we’d be helping them out a lot more by removing consistent playoff competition.

All this is to say: This is only a rough estimate of what would happen to the bizarro Kings in a universe where Sacramento is in the eastern half of the US but basically nothing else about them changes. It’s also a demonstration of how small disadvantages, like being in a stronger conference, can spiral into record-setting slumps instead of simple forgettable eras in a team’s history. An equally incompetent and unlucky team in the Eastern Conference would have most likely avoided a record-breaking playoff drought.

A brief comparison to the Clippers’ playoff drought record also makes the Kings’ drought look a bit less bad, at least in my opinion. The Clippers’ drought happened from 1977 to 1992, which saw them move from Buffalo to San Diego to LA, but, most relevant to our discussion, saw the Clippers fail to achieve a newly added 8th playoff seed from 1984 to 1991, an era where the average 8 seed was unusually bad (45.7% winning percentage on average for that span compared to 51.1% for an average 8 seed since) and making the playoffs in the Western Conference was arguably easier than making them in the East. Though their playoff drought began when fewer teams made the playoffs, the Clippers spent the final nine of the fifteen seasons of their drought missing the playoffs when making the playoffs was unusually easy. In contrast, the Kings would have had to win at least half of their games in every season except for 2020 to finish the regular season as at least the 8th seed in the West. So while the Kings might get the record for the longest NBA playoff drought, their drought might not be the most embarrassing.

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